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February 4, 2022updated 09 Mar 2023 11:09am

Will legacy planning pay off for Dubai’s District 2020?

The opportunity to develop a sustainable, human-centric city from scratch is not one that’s afforded to many parts of the world. District 2020, the legacy project for Dubai’s World Expo site, aims to offer a global model for post-Covid urban planning.

By Nikki Peach

“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted,” or so claims Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, describing a life devoid of community and social contact. An all too familiar concept in recent times, and one likely on the mind of the planners for Dubai’s District 2020.

Large crowds visit the UAE Pavilion, Expo 2020 Dubai. (Photo by Mahmoud Khaled/Expo 2020 Dubai)

Contrary to dystopian predictions, populations around the world flooded – albeit tentatively – back out to society as soon as Covid-19 laws permitted, desperate to restore and rediscover the social framework that had been damaged during the pandemic. One of the main principles instilled in us over the past two years is the value of public space, and how these spaces can evolve with the people that use them.

If you were to design a future city to accommodate both the myriad lessons the pandemic has taught us, as well as key existing development principles, what would it look like, and how would it work? Dubai’s District 2020, the legacy transition project for the Expo 2020 site, offers a strong example. The site has been designed and built on future-proof foundations – a multi-use and sustainable city set to redefine our sense of community.

When Expo 2020, this year’s global gathering of nations to exchange solutions and ideas about the future – postponed, of course, due to the pandemic – finishes next month, the plan is to transform and transition the site into a 4.38km2 city within nine months. The future District 2020 is hoping to offer a blueprint for other mega-events to transition into a legacy plan that benefits the entire region. “It’s definitely a place for people to work, play and live,” says Dr Robert Platt, vice-president of urban planning and public realm for the project, “and think, because we’re looking at academia as well”.

The district is set to offer housing, learning centres, office spaces, culture and leisure facilities, schools and higher education, and outdoor space flanked by architecture, waterfalls and wellness programmes – all proposed to be reachable within 15 minutes.

“We wanted to take 80% of everything we built for the World Expo and transform it into a sustainable, human-centric future city,” explains Nadimeh Mehra, vice-president of Dubai’s District 2020 transition unit. With a team of over 1,000 people, a combination of sustainability goals, digital infrastructure and a strictly human-centric approach, the site is on its way to becoming a place to live for the modern consumer ­– a demographic Dubai is well acquainted with. “Essentially we looked at it from the point of view that Expo is a six-month tenant of a longer development,” Platt confirms.

A future-proof blueprint

Legacy planning is not a concept founded by the UAE; there have been developments in the past. The London 2012 Olympic games site, for example, now acts as a large-scale sport, retail and residential hub in East London. Meanwhile, the Athens Olympic Hall was repurposed two years later to host another event, the 2006 Eurovision song contest.

We wanted to take 80% of everything we built for the World Expo and transform it into a sustainable, human-centric future city. Nadimeh Mehra, vice-president of the District 2020 transition unit

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However, most World Expo sites, hosted in a new location every five years, are temporary and end up being dismantled when the event finishes. Notable exceptions include the Eiffel Tower, erected for the Paris World Expo 1889, which has since become one of the city’s, and indeed the world’s, most iconic landmarks.

Anyone tasked with designing a site to host such a momentous and iconic event is forced to consider a number of factors: its potential as a tourist attraction, space for different nations to build their own pavilions, accommodation for guests and employees, and the ability to curate the best of what the region has to offer.

Mehra, who has been working on Dubai’s District 2020 project for six years, claims it’s different to other legacy projects because of how it folds into Dubai’s 2040 master plan. The new district will be identified as one of five urban centres in the whole region; this was something they had in mind in the very first stages of planning.

The reality is, from an environmental and economic standpoint, it would be hard for any nation to justify a large-scale, high-cost but short-term development that is designed to be dismantled after a mega-event has taken place. It’s certainly easier, as is the case for Expo 2020, when they are working with a blank canvas of desert landscape.

“The idea of creating District 2020 is really an off-shoot of Expo – a follow-on as part of our sustainable development goals,” Platt explains. “We created a venue and city that could pick up on all our design principles.” These principles, including urban governance, social cohesion, energy and water efficiency, and building a sustainable urban economy, are all promised to feature in the future district.

District 2020: What’s in it for Dubai?

The project has received support, Platt says, from the UAE government and quasi-government entities off the back of these integrated sustainability goals. As a champion of New Urbanism, a movement sweeping not just Dubai, but much of the UAE, North Africa and South East Asia, Platt aims to reimagine public space entirely – especially in light of the pandemic.

The idea of creating District 2020 is really an off-shoot of Expo – a follow-on as part of our sustainable development goals. Dr Robert Platt, vice-president of urban planning and public realm

Working from home and isolating from friends and colleagues worked well as a practical measure against the virus, but it removes a great deal of what makes a community – and with that, the opportunity to share ideas and enjoy spontaneous social interactions. This new development model ensures that “if you create the right mix of working and residential opportunities, you’ll create an inclusive environment”, Platt confirms.

While the ‘lifestyle’ the project facilitates caters largely to is an existing demographic of corporate couples or single-child families, the developers promise that Dubai’s District 2020 is open for all residents, visitors and companies to experience.

All buildings are low-rise, the tallest is nine storeys high,” Mehra explains, “and the infrastructure is in place to allow companies to change their space based on their requirements at any given time.”

In a global and arguably hyper-developed architectural region like Dubai, what is the incentive to move or set up your business in a brand new district? What’s unique about the project, Mehra explains, is that “in Dubai, you have residential districts and work districts, or you can go to certain areas for hip and cool restaurants, or another area for art and culture”.

Dubai’s District 2020, she continues, “brings all those elements together in one area; we’ve got art and culture, we’ve got great [food and beverages], we’ve got parks and bike lanes and residential properties all within one space.”

But who is actually building it? In a region with historically weak labour laws, the UAE Government is supposedly introducing numerous legal reforms in response to well-documented allegations of unpaid wages, long working hours and exploitation of workers. Expo claims to be building on these reforms to further protect worker welfare on-site.

Visitors walking past the UAE Pavilion, Expo 2020 Dubai. (Photo by Christophe Viseux/Expo 2020 Dubai)

The team assures me that the “18-strong Worker Welfare Team, made up of global and regional experts” is on hand to support on-site workers at all times.

The organisation has also confirmed that it takes worker welfare seriously. Whether the 22,500 workers are included in the “human-centric vision” of the project is debatable, but measures are in place to ensure that their wellbeing remains a priority.

Expo provided the following statement: “The people working on our wonderful site come from all over the world. The ten main nationalities are: Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Egyptian, Filipino, Kenyan, Ghanaian, Syrian and Nigerian. Their accommodation is off-site and they are provided with transport to and from work each day.”

A brave post-Covid world

For those that do stand to benefit from District 2020 – and with the teachings of Covid-19 in plain sight – it’s set to be the first WELL-certified community in the region, and the fifth in the world. This means the project has met the WELL criteria for advanced health and well-being developments, which notably improve health and human experience through design.

“We have a big focus on wellness,” Mehra added, “we want to set the benchmark as a municipal authority.” This criteria means ensuring micromobility, allowing visitors and tenants to get around the city easily without owning a car, picturesque cafés to offer an alternative to working from home and plenty of serene outdoor spaces to be shared with the rest of the public. “It’s a healthier and safer environment for people to live in, which makes it better for children too,” Platt claims.

“Our soft legacy is what makes the physical legacy successful,” says Mehra. “We did three studies over the past three or four years, continually updating our growth trends. They currently include a green economy, smart mobility, smart logistics and Industry 4.0 – they are on a growth trajectory in this entire region.”

Dubai’s innovation agenda, incorporating these trends, is starting to place a much stronger emphasis on wellness. Something that seems inevitable for any developers creating living or workspaces in the future. According to The Lancet, an additional 53.2 million people suffered from major depressive disorders due to the Covid-19 pandemic, also reporting a rise of 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorders globally. The demand for a new model of living is clear, and Dubai stands to profit.

“Let’s remember that we had a blank canvas – a desert – and in half a decade we built an entire city,” Mehra comments. “Other established places around the world don’t have that privilege.” She admits that the ability to build District 2020 is not only well-timed in how it’s informed by the tribulations of Covid-19, but it is also an opportunity relatively unique to the region. It’s a lot easier to build a futuristic city from the ground up than it is to transform or reconstruct existing infrastructure and communities.

The pull of Dubai, for many people, is the hyper-luxurious lifestyle that the region has come to represent, as well as “the weather for six months of the year”, Mehra adds in jest.

“Future cities evolve so rapidly, what’s smart today could be outdated in six months,” she adds. Most importantly, Platt continues, is that “we need physical and social interaction, we need to feel like we belong”.

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